Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Story Collection: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People is a powerful collection of short stories exploring concepts of identity, class, race, body-image, and love among African Americans. Sometimes funny, sometimes gut-wrenching, always provocative, Nafissa Thompson-Spires uses powerful and piercing language to look frankly at issues that most authors would hesitate to address.

 

Thompson-Spires introduces us to characters who are very different than the typical characters we meet in books and stories. All of them are black, but their “blackness” is uniquely their own. Two characters who appear in multiple stories are the only African American girls in their high school. We first meet their mothers, engaged in a very pointed exchange of letters that is equally amusing and cringe-worthy. The girls themselves wrestle with their own identities: should they be friends because they are both black in a white world? Are they rivals? Are they enemies? One of the girls is large, the other is thin, and their body image also factors into their relationship.

 

Other characters wrestle with interracial relationships, with being disabled (or with stalking the disabled), with anger and lust and religion, with participating in atypical pursuits like cosplay. Most of the stories are set in southern California, which seems to add its own unique dimension to the characters’ identities. One of the characters specifically contrasts California racial identity to that experienced by people in the south, calling out his friend for his attitude toward those from the south.

 

All of these stories are fascinating and reflect a world very different from my own. What stands out to me is how different the worlds of the characters are from each other as well. Although there are certainly commonalities that transcend various differences, to say there is one “black experience” is unfair and dismissive. Some of the characters in this book have a lot superficially in common–and they don’t relate to each other at all. Two black girls in the same majority white private school can still have very different experiences based on their own physical size, their own experiences dating, their relationships with the larger African-American community, their own personalities and their attitudes toward each other and toward others. A young man who enjoys cosplaying as Japanese anime characters can feel alienated from others of his own race and not feel fully embraced by those of other races even when they share that common passion. A young woman can objectify someone based on disability just as much as another might objectify that same person based on race.

 

All of the characters have an uneasy and tortured relationship with the world around them. They struggle with their families. They struggle with their communities. They inflict wounds on themselves and on others. Not all of them survive their own stories. Thompson-Spires gives us troubled characters who are unique and individual, struggling to find out who they are. Are they identified by their skin color? Are they identified by their physical body type? Are they identified by their social or economic class? Are they identified by their choices? Are they identified by their families? The answers are always yes and no and somewhat and I don’t know…which is probably the dilemma most of us feel trying to find our way through life.

 

I do not want to pretend that I can fully relate to any of these characters. In America, my skin color comes with privileges that Thompson-Spires’ characters do not share. But although her stories are about black people, they are profoundly and deeply about people, people with loves and hurts and desires and needs and struggles, lusts and longings and confusion and mental disorder. And in many of their hopes and dreams and fears, I could see myself as well. Heads of Colored People is a powerful collection of stories, one that challenges and delights and provokes.

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Short Story Collection: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

I’m not sure I have ever used the word “luscious” to describe a book before. I probably would not use it often. I will use it here. Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City is luscious. Beautifully illustrated, rich, poetic and surreal, it is a visual and lyrical journey into a series of imaginary realms exploring imagined relationships between humans and animals, relationships that don’t actually exist. Some of them we can be grateful are entirely imaginary. Others, it might be nice if they were real. Either way, the paintings Tan pairs with each story or poem are gorgeous and give a visual dimension to the words that makes them even more vivid.

 

It will be impossible in this review to do justice to the Tales from the Inner City. It is worth buying just for the pictures. Tan is known for his graphic novels and children’s books, and won an Oscar for his short film The Lost Thing. Clearly he is comfortable with visual communication, but don’t think for a moment that the visuals detract from the words. If this were just a collection of short stories and poems it would be worth getting. The fact that Tales from the Inner City has both gorgeous and (again) luscious paintings illustrating creative, poetic, and surreal stories is almost unfair to other books.

 

Tales from the Inner City starts with a story about crocodiles living in a skyscraper. On the eighty-seventh floor. Most people do not know they are there, and the crocodiles themselves do not seem to know (or care) that they are in a skyscraper as opposed to a more traditional crocodilian location. Many of the stories follow this kind of strange, absurd premise. One of my favorite stories is of a family that goes fishing in the sky…and catches a moon fish. The painting illustrating this story is also on the dust jacket of the hardcover, a silhouette of a man holding a large silvery, glistening, light-filled fish with orange fins. Horses, unseen by adults but obvious to children, gallop across the skyline of a city. Pigeons live and raise their young in nests built in a flying bank. Owls wait with patients in hospital, assuring them of their constant care. These stories, some whimsical, some poignant, some eerie, some all of those together, tell of a world with magic and wilder than we usually imagine.

 

Most of the stories have just one painting illustrating them. An exception is his metaphor of wolves becoming dogs. More of a poem than a story, Tan writes,

One day I threw my stick at you.

You brought it back.

My hand touched your ear.

Your nose touched the back of my knee.

Then we were walking side by side

as if it had always been this way.

The poem follows the two, human and wolf/dog, together until they are separated by death. Death, though, is imagined as a road or path or river to cross…and the wolf/dog waits on the other side for their human to join them so they can walk together into the next adventure. Illustrating this is a series of paintings of different people and different dogs/wolves separated by different paths. The poses are the same, but everything else is different from one painting to the next. Then, finally, paintings reflect the reunion of the two as they walk together away from that place of separation. I know a lot of dog-lovers who would cry at this story.

 

Tales from the Inner City is a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book. Some will love the pictures, some will love the stories, but most will love the way the words give depth to the pictures and the way the pictures give life to the words. Shaun Tan has created something absolutely luscious.

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Fiction: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has won many literary awards, including the Newberry, Carnegie, Hugo, and Nebula. He is known for his comics, his novels, his screenplays, and his short fiction. When it comes to putting pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard), he does it all well. Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories, with a few poems thrown in as well, that demonstrates the breadth and power of a master at work.

 

Gaiman warns in the introduction that “There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.” His work is often strange and disturbing, and these short stories contain several that are both. Like the author himself says, “I wondered…whether, one day, people would put a trigger warning on my fiction. I wondered whether or not they would be justified in doing it. And then I decided to do it first.”

 

Fans of other works by Gaiman will find familiar characters and settings in some of the stories. Black Dog features Baldur “Shadow” Moon, a character from his novel American Gods. Gaiman won a Hugo for his Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife;” in Nothing O’Clock, Gaiman returns to the Doctor, the TARDIS, and Amy Pond. Although not traditionally associated with Gaiman, The Case of Death and Honey tells of an elderly Sherlock Holmes nearing the end of his life…or is he?

 

Gaiman’s stories travel the lines between fantasy and horror, science fiction and possibly some other genre uniquely his own. They are dark and sometimes macabre, not in an overtly bloody or gruesome way but in the psychological way where the road to your own fears is marked and your imagination takes you down the paths that make you shudder. Gaiman warns us in the title that he is going for triggers. Believe him.

 

An example. Click-Clack the Rattlebag starts so gently. A man visiting his girlfriend meets her younger brother. The younger brother wants him to tuck him in and tell him a story. I read this over Thanksgiving, spending time with my wonderful granddaughters. They like grandpa to read them stories. I like to read them stories. I did not read this one to them–I know that Neil Gaiman is not the go-to source for bedtime stories for toddlers. This story started so gently, so sweetly. A young man, bonding with his girlfriend’s family. Except, that is not what the story is about. The hints are there, near the beginning. Even if I did not know about Neil Gaiman’s work, even if it were not in the middle of a collection called Trigger Warning, the indicators could almost have been in all-caps: THIS STORY IS GOING TO GO SIDEWAYS AND CREEP YOU OUT! I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say that later in the evening when my older granddaughter wanted me to read a story to her, I thought twice about it!

 

(Of course, then I went ahead and read the story–Gaiman will not stand between me and my granddaughters!)

 

This may not be the right book for every reader. For those who love fantasy, horror, and great writing, it is an excellent choice. One thing I love about short story collections is they can be read in small pieces. One story now, another tonight, pick it up later in the week. Skip around, come back to it later. It’s worth the time, and the goosebumps.

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

1618731432

Fiction Collection: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Traveling the stars, riding a current of particles and discovering it is inhabited by living creatures riding the current with you. Plotting to assassinate the king only to learn he is not what you expected. Watching the past through a machine that lets you see it happen, then discovering the machine might also let you make it happen. Traveling to Alaska to gather the effects of your late aunt and uncovering a mystery. These are among the stories told in Vandana Singh’s imaginative collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

 

Singh is originally from New Delhi, India, but in recent years she has made Boston home. She is a professor of physics, with expertise that informs but does not overwhelm her writing. Her stories are rich with the flavors of India and the power of science. Reading them was fun. Her characters have Indian names, eat Indian foods, wear Indian clothes, reference Indian literature and remember Indian gods. Considering that India is the second most populous country on earth (and soon will surpass China for number one) and that India has a vibrant and growing technology and science sector in their economy, the lack of Indian characters in speculative fiction needs to change. Singh’s stories are a valuable addition to the genre even if that were all they did.

 

Fortunately, they do much more than introduce characters who hail from the subcontinent. They are beautifully written and wonderfully imagined stories. They introduce us to new worlds and new technologies, technologies that let you shape the future by changing the past, technologies that let you move between universes, technologies that let you ride particle waves through space between the stars. They introduce us to an Earth ravaged by climate change. They introduce us to poets and assassins, kings and queens and commoners, scientists and explorers and artists. Singh’s stories are fresh and new, but they convey the richness of a culture that has centuries of history supporting it. Her characters may live on other planets or on a very different Earth than we know, but then we hear them tell each other stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and we remember that those stories deserve retelling as much as the stories that are more familiar to readers in the United States and Europe. Even when her stories are pure imagination–the legends and myths of other planets–they feel rooted in a non-European soil.

 

Her characters are not just “diverse” because they are non-white. They are different ages and different social strata. They are male and female and non-binary, gay and straight, old and young and in-between, rich and poor, educated and not. Her settings include fancy laboratories and an urban slaughterhouse, spaceships and exotic planets and an Alaskan coastal research facility. Singh shows us imagined futures that include people of all types, and indeed it’s hard to imagine these days that any future would successfully end poverty and corruption and other societal ills that have bedeviled humans throughout history.

 

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is Singh’s second collection of short stories. Her first collection is The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. She has also written some novellas. If you are looking for some creatively written and highly imaginative short stories, Vandana Singh is definitely a writer for you.

1618731432

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh